Choosing the better part

Choosing the better part

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Mystery of the Altar

Guardini next invites us to plumb the depths of the image and mystery of the altar - the "frontier, the border where God comes to us and we go to Him in a special manner."  However, he notes that in our tendency to be over conceptualistic we have lost the ability to read images and symbols; in this case the altar as "table."  

The sacred table is that place where gifts are offered - a place of sacrifice where union is established between the Divine and human.  The union established in the Eucharist however comes through the true offering of God the Son:  Life and Person are given to us as Gift and we are made through it sons and daughters of God.  Not only are we reconciled with God through such a sacrifice but drawn into the very life of the Trinity.  Thus, the communion that is realized and exists at this altar not only nourishes us but is an expression of God's hunger and thirst  - his longing for men and to draw them close to Him.

THE ALTAR is the threshold to God’s immanence. Through Christ, God ceased to be the Unknown, the Inaccessible One; He turned to us, came to us, and became one of us in order that we might go to Him and become one with Him. The altar is the frontier, the border where God comes to us and we go to Him in a most special manner.
At this point a few remarks about the images used to express sacred mysteries are in order. The images unlock the storehouse of God’s riches, and they help us to concentrate on particular aspects of divine reality with all our power. When we consider the altar as a threshold, we see one particular trait, leaving out of consideration any other, such as that expressed by the concept “table.” The images used are necessarily taken from objects of our own experience. But, since we are not cut off from God and His life as is one room in a house from another, we must not put too much emphasis on the inability of images adequately to express divine realities. If we do, we lose something precious, something essential. Images are not makeshifts handy for children and the vulgar crowd, which the cultured elite, wrestling with “pure” concepts, should despise. When Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, woke from his great dream, he cried: “How terrible is this place! This is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven” (Gen. 28:17). And St. John writes: “. . . and behold, a door standing open in heaven, and the former voice, which I had heard as of a trumpet speaking with me, said, ‘come up hither, and I will show thee the things that must come to pass hereafter’” (Apoc. 4:1). Now if we were to say that “door” is here only a figure of speech suggesting that God is invisible yet near, that no one can reach Him, but that He can draw us to Himself, we would be correct but we would fail to grasp the basic meaning of John’s words. St. John wrote “door” because he meant door and not only poetically. The intellect may attempt to express in concepts and sentences all that the image “door” implies; but such concepts are mere props to the essential, not more. The truth is the other way around: it is the image that is the reality; the mind can only attempt to plumb it. The image is richer than the thought; hence the act by which we comprehend an image, gazing, is richer, more profound, vital and storeyed than the thought. People today are, if the word may be permitted, over-conceptualistic. We have lost the art of reading images and parables, of enacting symbols. We could relearn some of this by encouraging and practicing the power of vision, a power which has been neglected for too long.
But to return to our subject: the mystery of the altar is only partially suggested by the image of the threshold; altar is also table. The presentiment of a sacred table at which not only man but also divinity takes its place is to be found in the religions of all peoples. Everywhere the pious believer places gifts upon an altar so that the godhead may accept them. The idea that these gifts belong to the godhead and no longer to men is conveyed by their destruction or withdrawal from human use. The body of the sacrificial animal is burned, the drink poured out upon the ground. This immolation symbolizes what is contained in the process of death: the “passing over” to the other side, to the realm of the divine. A second process is often related to the first. Not everything is “given over”; part is retained or rather returned, for what was destroyed represented the whole now to be enjoyed by the offerers. Thus godhead and man are nourished by the same sacred food. Indeed, behind this concept lies one still more profound: man’s offering stands for himself, is really himself; the true offering is human sacrifice. Again, the offering stands for the godhead itself; true nourishment is divine life. From a certain standpoint these conceptions are very profound, though closer examination reveals that they have sunk into gloom, worldliness, and animalism. The godhead, then, lives from the life of man of a tribe, a people; on the other hand, man sees in his godhead the spiritual mainspring of his own life and that of his clan, tribe, people. Divinity has need of man and man of divinity, for in the final analysis they are the same; sacrifice is the constantly renewed process of this union.
Such conceptions are totally absent from the Old Testament. The God to whose altar offerings are brought is neither the vital principle of a people nor the secret of the world’s vitality, but Creator and Lord of all that is. The offering is an acknowledgment of His lordship; it in no way affects His potency, but is simply a recognition that all things are His, and that man may dispose of them only with His permission. Strictly speaking, the animal from the flock should be slaughtered only before the altar, not because God has any need of its blood, but because all life is His property; the harvest should be consumed only before the altar, since everything that bears its seed “within itself” belongs to God. This idea is expressed in the sacrifice of livestock and in the offering of the fields’ first fruits. Only then does man receive herd and harvest back from the altar for his own use.
The altar is the table to which the heavenly Father invites us. Through salvation we have become sons and daughters of God, and His house is ours. At the altar we enjoy the intimate community of His sacred table. From His hand we receive the “bread of heaven,” the word of truth, and, far excelling all imaginable gifts, His own incarnate Son, the living Christ (See John 6). What is given us, then, is at once corporal reality and sentient truth, Life and Person, in short Gift.
But if we ask whether at the sacred table God too receives something, whether the age-old presentiment of a real community of table between God and man is not also fulfilled in the clean air of Christian faith, the answer is not easy. Fear of being irreverent makes us cautious. However, we can point to a mystery that fills the letters of St. Paul and appears also in the farewell speeches of St. John’s gospel. The fruit of the divine sojourn on earth is salvation. This means not only our forgiveness and justification but also that the world is “brought home” to the Father. And again not only in the sense that we return to God in love and obedience but that men and through men the world in all its reality is received into divine life. God desires this. When we are told that He loves us, this does not mean that He is merely benevolent toward us; the word is meant in all its abundance.
God longs for men. He wants to have His creatures close to Him. When Christ cried from the cross, “I thirst,” a dying man’s bodily torment was indeed expressed, but much more besides (John 19:28). Similarly at Jacob’s well, when the disciples encouraged Jesus to eat the food they had brought, He replied: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, to accomplish his work” (John 4: 34). Mysterious hungering and thirsting this the hunger and thirst of God! St. Augustine writes that the receiving of the Eucharist does not mean so much that we partake of the divine life offered us, as that divine life draws us into itself. These thoughts should not be pressed too far, for they are holy. It is important, however, to know that a mystery of divine-human love and communion does exist and that it is realized at the altar.

No comments:

Post a Comment